The Land of Freedom Is Now Land of the Jailed

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For years, America's persistently falling crime rates have baffled the nation's policy wonks. The head-scratching can stop, because it's all been explained by a revelation Thursday from the Justice Department: There's no one left to commit crimes — everyone has been stuffed into prison. In part, of course, we jest; the figures, though, are serious. According to the DOJ's calculations, the U.S. adult prison population reached record levels in 1999; jails housed 1.86 million people last year, or one of every 147 citizens. That makes America, which in 1985 had less than 800,000 people behind bars, the most jail-happy nation in the world, edging out Russia, the former front-runner.

Why have so many Americans been sent up the river? And is it a good thing? There are plenty of answers, depending on one's viewpoint. Some believe that such high numbers reflect unduly harsh sentencing and irresponsible public policy that does very little to address the underlying causes of crime. Others point to the aforementioned crime statistics as proof that the get-tough policies of the '80s and '90s are working as intended. Whatever the positions taken, however, there is definite potential, if the numbers keep on climbing, for public backlash. Urban politicians are likely to point to the large numbers of minorities behind bars, a sign of increasing marginalization in their communities. Then there is the fact that a considerable portion of the increase can be attributed to a rise in repeat offenders, thus raising the possibility that the mounting figures will never stop unless more serious efforts are made at rehabilitation. Finally, there is the issue of money — prisons gobble up a considerable portion of the public purse (about $15,000 per prisoner, per year). If the economy goes south and the tax base dries up, politicians keen on looking tough on crime may find that a lot of crimes are going to start looking a lot less serious.